LONDON - Sotheby's has scrapped its February sale of a £4.5 million ($9 million) mask believed to have been looted by British forces from 19th century West Africa.
"A number of private individuals" contacted the auction house last week to complain about the sale of the 16th century ivory mask, thought to have belonged once to a Nigerian king.
Local government officials in Nigeria have condemned the sale and criticised the object's present owners, the descendants of a former British government official involved in an 1897 British invasion of Benin, a city-state in what is now Nigeria. The mask, one of the last great masterpieces of Benin sculpture remaining in private hands, is believed to have been worn by the "Oba" or king of Benin on ceremonial occasions.
It was due to be sold by the descendants of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Henry Lionel Galway, who took part in 1897's punitive expedition in southern Nigeria. This was mounted by British forces in retaliation for a massacre of a previous British-led invasion force. Troops deposed the king and looted the city.
The British confiscated many of the treasures they found, auctioning them off to finance the expedition. Many of the artefacts ended up in the British Museum, which holds another of the same group of masks, although some remained in private hands.
"The Benin ivory mask and other items consigned by the descendants of Lionel Galway which Sotheby's had announced for auction in February 2011 have been withdrawn from sale at the request of the consignors," said a Sotheby's spokesman.
Protests against the sale emerged on social networking sites last week. An online petition was organised by the Nigeria Liberty Forum.